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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 05-Apr-06


Wednesday 05-Apr-06

Rock climbing and change

Rock climbing and managing change are both dangerous sports, and many practitioners in each of these domains have come to sticky ends. In some ways, rock climbing is actually much safer, and successful ascents far outstrip successful change projects.

So why is rock climbing so much safer? I know that if I go out and try it now, I am unlikely to come back in one piece. Perhaps it is because the dangers are so obvious that people take more care. In business projects, risks may seem more distant and there is greater opportunity for denial. To people who spend most of their time managing regular ground-level operations, scaling the cliffs of change just seems like following a planned route, much as on the ground.

When you fall off a cliff, the further you fall, the greater the damage, until the point is reached when any additional height has the same fatal consequences. In organizational change, progression through the project incurs incrementally increasing spend. If the project fails at any point, then what has been spent is lost, and the people in charge incur proportional career injuries.

Climbers have a safety system that protects them from significant harm when they slip: ropes and pitons. As they climb the rock face, they hammer special metal clips, know as 'pitons', into the rock face and then thread the rope, which is attached to the climber, through these. Now, if a climber falls, they will only fall twice the distance back to the last piton. and if perchance a piton fails, then the piton before that acts as a failsafe safety backup.

This pattern of 'pegging progress' can be used in management of change, and in particular in the assurance of commitment. The basic trick is to manage commitments as a recorded sequence of agreements, each built on the previous one. When one agreement fails, then rather than the whole house of cards collapsing, you backtrack to the previous agreement and rebuild from there.

For example, in a project to develop documentation standards that I managed, there was disagreement about the standards as proposed. At this, some individuals who didn't want any standards tried to rubbish the whole project. I responded to this by stepping back to a previous agreement, that standards were required, tested this, then tested the requirement for standards in the disputed area. This gave me a strong base on which to question the objections more realistically.

The very fact of having this linked security system means that some people who might resist the change will think twice in trying to muddy the waters. If they know that you can withstand their attacks and the egg would on their face, then they are much less likely to throw it in the first place.

The same principle can also be used when there is less resistance to change: secure your current position before moving on. The more you move between fixing pitons, the greater risk of injury you are taking. Successful change thus depends on two skills: securing your position and judging how far to move before securing again.

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